Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A pretty girl and her jewelry box

I was fortunate to have an interesting commission come my way not too long ago, and from the states.  A friend asked me to make a jewelry box for his young daughter, to be shown to her upon it's arrival, but actually will be given to her to use when she is older....perhaps turning 18?  I considered it a thoughtful and loving gift.  The order also came at a time when I really needed the work, due to the earthquake and consequences that had resulted shortly before.  Thanks, Paul!

I had been keeping a small supply of what is called Enju wood here, in my possession for at least fifteen years, but had never used any of it.  It is a legume, not so unlike Black Acacia and in the same family I believe, but is a bit softer and a warm brown color.  No previous experience working with the species, but I knew it by reputation as a material sometimes used by an old occupation of woodworkers in Japan, called "sashimono".  These are people that specialized in making smaller items in wood, from scroll cases to certain types of furniture, most frequently in a traditional style, but in many instances also having unique detail embellishments, often very intricately made articles that required a major investment in time to produce.  The level of skill and fine degree of execution is inspiring if one cares to look into it.  There are fine examples to be seen, though sadly, the demand for such goods is in limited supply today, and the number of people still involved in the trade, now few. I suspected that Enju is fairly easy to work and can take on fine crisp details, which turned out to be the case. I can only imagine that the color of the wood will become deep and rich with time and use.

I enjoyed this project immensely, from the initial conceptualizing to the finish execution.  The design is pretty simple, but there is some subtlety, as in the slightly curving sides from top to bottom.  It wasn't without a degree of difficulty to make, working within the limited allowable size, and I was quite pleased with the way it turned out.  My customer seems happy too, sent a photo of Whylie that I love, taken on her birthday!  It was a lucky coincidence that the jewelry box arrived shortly before.  The box is really not very large, but Whylie being next to it makes it appear so.  I am confident that in a few years, the proportions will be better matched!  I do hope that she will get many years of enjoyable use from what I made for her.  In thirty or forty years, I would very much like to see how it has aged....Whylie as well, alas.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Chestnut is one of my favorite locally available species of wood to work with.  It is not so hard as many other typical furniture making woods, a nice change from using Walnut and Cherry, for example.  The species has a certain accommodating resiliency, is quite stable, and over time, ages to a very attractive warm homey color.  With use and care, it will take on a nice patina as well, one beyond what the oil finishing process can initially impart, Either with an oil or urushi finish, the results can be very attractive.  The grain pattern is bold apparent, but not overwhelming, compared to what is often found in Keyaki (Zelkova).  There is a feeling of humbleness and practicality with the material, and that coincides with the diverse locations where it can be seen growing in and around the area where I reside.  Large trees sometimes become available to be sawn into slabs to dry for later use, but as is often the case with other woods as well, finding logs without defects can prove difficult.  Age imparts the welcomed size, but it also gives time for rot or other undesirable effects to develop, and some types of boring insects frequently will target the wood.  Fortunately, Japan has not been affected by the great Chestnut blight disease, that greatly eliminated the species in other parts of the world

Since the great earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan, I have continued to work in my shop.  Though commissions came to a near standstill and it was a major disruption, I did have some requested pieces to complete over the last year, the photos shown here being representative of some of it, and with the thankfulness as well, to have such a fine Chestnut wood to provide for the making, for myself and the people that asked me to make furniture for them.

The upper photo of four chairs is for a location that I never saw.  A lady looked through my portfolio and liked some older Windsor styles that I had done many years earlier, and notified that, "Simpler is better", was her philosophy, something that I don't so much subscribe to, generally liking a certain degree of subtle ornamentation on furniture.  I was in agreement in this instance, however, as doing the work for a 'mystery spot' necessitated restraint.  The client also specified wanting a comfortable wooden seat, as opposed to using upholstery.  Those were pretty much the extent of her specifics, once again with the nod to something not dissimilar to the earlier work photos that I had shown her.  My 'hunch' of what she would like, some inspiration from the wood, and what I wanted to make, is what remained to help with the direction of things.  After sending her the completed chairs, she responded with a most pleasing note, and a box of delicious mikan, a type of Japanese fruit similar to tangerines, and available during the winter from some warmer areas in the south.  Eating mikan during the winter is a national pastime.  It is something that can help take your mind off the cold, and what a relentless cold winter it was!  Also, the fruit is a good source of vitamin C.  Stay healthy to do more woodwork, is perhaps what she was wanting to say, along with her thanks.

The cushion seat chair as part of a dining set commission for a newly built small home, is shown with flat runners on the bottoms of the legs, essential added parts when using this type of seating on the tatami mat.  Without the lower flat connecting pieces, the legs would be damaging to the mat, causing indentations and possible tearing.  With them, the weight is spread out with no edges that will grab, and the chairs slide easily over the surface.  For wooden or carpeted surfaces, I produce this design without the bottom runners.  For people that might find it helpful to have their chairs be able to be moved with more minimal resistance, the runners can be incorporated for any surface on which the seating is used, acting as glides. The arm on this chair is rather difficult to make.  There is a dip in the midway portion of the sloping arm surface, between where one's elbow and forearm make contact when sitting, yet the wood thickness remains consistent.   As opposed to the simpler alternative of merely being flat, the curve at that point makes for more comfortable resting of a person's arm, and also adds a certain visual welcoming softness, to my eye.  Done in this way complicates the joinery process, and the design requires a number of ordered steps from bandsawing to hand shaping, to give the results that I want.  A lot of care and control is required to give the smooth transition of lines and what will best provide comfort.  The method is my own concept, I have never seen similarly done.

I am certainly one of the more fortunate ones, to still have the ability to live and work as before the disaster struck Japan, where so many people suffered the tragic losses of family, home, and their place of occupation. For many individuals, returning to what had previously been their normal way of life is still far from being realized, or the hopes to do so will never be completely fulfilled.  What particularly strikes me in this post, is the strong contrast between the last two photos.  The upper one shows a hopefulness for the future, the ability to find usefulness and enjoyment within our surroundings and in the way we live, while the lower photo shows a kind of ultimate destruction, with everything gone and bewilderment towards what lies ahead.  Both can be the realities of life.